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A Matter of Time: Vol. 1
by Mary Calmes

Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Vol. 1 (Books One and Two) Jory Keyes leads a normal life as an architect's assistant until he is witness to a brutal murder. Though initially saved by police Detective Sam Kage, Jory refuses protective custody--he has a life he loves that he won't give up no matter who is after him. But Jory's life is in real jeopardy, especially after he agrees to testify about what he saw. While dealing with attempts on his life, well-meaning friends who want to see him happy, an overly protective boss, and a slowly unfolding mystery that is much more sinister than he could ever imagine, the young gay man finds himself getting involved with Sam, the conflicted and closeted detective. And though Jory may survive the danger, he may not survive a broken heart.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: August 2011

eBookeBook

22 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [478 KB]
Words: 111712
Reading time: 319-446 min.


Chapter One

After careful thought and consideration I have come to the conclusion that things happen to me for two reasons. First, I have a terrible habit of tuning out in the middle of a conversation. I'll hear the beginning, start thinking about what I'm going to do later, and then come back in time to hear the end. This gets particularly dicey when I'm getting directions, because you never want to ask someone to repeat something they have already gone over in specific detail. This is why I often end up in some spooky neighborhoods after dark. I'm winging it. Second, I am not the most discriminating person on the planet. So when a friend of mine asks me to do them a favor, I'll usually just do it without asking a lot of questions. Not that I would be listening to the whole explanation anyway, since like I said, I'm probably the poster child for ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, unless you're my boss or a really hot guy.

The night my friend Anna called me, sobbing on the other end of the phone, I immediately went into nurture mode and walked out of the club, so I could hear her better. There is no way to hear anything over trance music, so I had her wait to spill her guts. I was happily surprised to hear that she was finally leaving her husband. She had stayed with me or her sister many times, after he'd hit her for the millionth time. It's hard to watch your friends come to class wearing oversized sunglasses, and makeup that's so thick it could have been applied with a putty knife. Everyone knew her husband beat her, I just never knew how bad or constant it was. I lost track of her after graduation, when she moved to the suburbs, but when she called I was right back there, instantly in that place where I was ready to help any way I could. I told her that of course, I would do whatever she needed.

In all the movies on the Lifetime channel, which I watched the last time I was home sick--hung over and hurling--the wife always has to go back to get her kid's stuffed animal from the house of horrors she lives in. But before she can put the pedal to the metal and point the late-model station wagon with the faux-wood paneling into the sunset, she has to return for Boo-Boo Bunny or Mr. Snuggles, or a teddy bear that has been loved so hard and long it now resembles an iguana. Anna didn't have any kids, but what she did have was her beagle, George. She couldn't go back, but neither could she leave without her partner in crime. They had apparently executed all manner of petty crimes and misdemeanors against her husband over the years. From peeing in shoes--George's part--to hiding miscellaneous items--Anna's part--they had made Brian Minor's daily existence annoying, in exchange for the abuse he had handed out with fist and word. It had given her some degree of satisfaction knowing that, one day, vengeance would be hers. She knew she'd been a coward to not just leave, but she suspected her husband was far more sinister then he let on. So Anna was finally ready to call it a day with Brian but he would have suspected something, and probably killed her, if she'd tried to take her dog. She needed me to get her puppy to make a clean break of it. Because I wanted her out of there so badly, and because I would have gone back for my own dog were he still alive, there was no way to say no.

After leaving my friends dancing at a club on Halsted, I took a cab and headed out to the suburbs. I tried never to leave the city and had only been outside of downtown Chicago on two previous occasions. On the way over there I tried to remember where in the house she had told me the dog was, but since I hadn't heard that part it was useless to try and dredge the information from my brain. I figured when I got to the house, which I had only been to once, it wouldn't be hard to find a beagle.

The problem turned out to be finding the house itself. I forgot the address and I didn't want to call Anna back and look like I hadn't been listening. Even though I hadn't. And by then enough time had gone by that if I had called her she would have wondered why I just didn't call her earlier, so... the cabbie and I took the tour of La Grange until I remembered the street in an energy-drink-fuelled vision after I made him stop at a gas station. It had only taken two hours to get to her huge three-story apparition. I asked the driver to wait for me and he said he'd rather drink Clorox. I understood. I can be exhausting at times. I watched him drive away before I headed toward the house.

The front door swung open when I went to ring the doorbell. I called for Brian and got no response. When I called for George, I heard muffled barking from a room to the left. It was the study, and as soon as I walked in I realized the noise was coming from behind the curtain. When I checked, there was another door behind it. If you weren't looking for it you would have never seen it, but there was no missing the high-pitched puppy whining. When I opened the door, George was all over me, whimpering, dancing, his whole little body moving with his wagging tail, trying like mad to claw through my jeans. I bent to pet him, and when I did, without meaning to, without even thinking about it, I stepped into the office. The door was open but behind the curtain, so even though I had never intended to hide, I ended up doing just that. It was only for a second and I was ready to step back out when I heard the crash. George yelped and retreated behind my leg. I peeked around the drape and saw a man lying on top of the remains of the heavy glass coffee table that I had walked by seconds earlier. He was covered in blood and mumbling softly.

There are those moments that seem like a strobe light is going off in your head. You see pieces of things but not the whole picture. I saw the shattered glass, the burnished black leather shoes of the guys standing on the royal blue Persian rug; I saw the polished marble floors and Brian holding a gun on the guy. It doesn't sound like it does in the movies. When a gun goes off, there's no boom, it's more of a firecracker pop. I saw the guy jerk, heard him scream out "no," and watched Brian unload the gun. It was fast, like a jump cut in a movie, and it was over. All the guys took a turn spitting on him, and it was at that moment that two things happened simultaneously. First, my phone rang, which does "Karma Chameleon," and second, George bolted through the drape. I lunged for him and caught his collar but not in time to stop my forward momentum. It was like being on stage. I came out from behind the curtain. Like ta-dah!

My eyes swept the room; I saw every face before I settled on the one I knew the best, the guy holding the empty gun.

"Jory!" Brian roared, and because I have no fight reflex whatsoever, I went immediately to flight. I yanked on George's collar and whipped him back into the other room. As I dived after him I heard the shots and Brian screaming my name. He'd never been all that crazy about me but we were definitely in another place by that moment.

I got my legs under me and ran. I yelled for George and he was running along beside me as fast as his little legs would carry him. I saw a guy in front of me but instead of slowing down I sped up. When he pulled his gun, I dropped to my knees and slid halfway across the polished wooden floor. It would have been very cool if I weren't running for my life at the time. He fell on top of me, but I got untangled and ran for the front door. When I threw it open, I was faced with Darth Vader.

"Get down," he ordered me, and what sounded like a baseball hit him in the chest.

I dove for the ground and he stepped on me and then somebody else kicked me and then my arm got yanked so hard I thought my shoulder was dislocated. Outside, someone dragged me to my feet before pulling me into the street where like a hundred police cars were, lights flashing everywhere. It was cold and I registered that before anything else. There were more shots and I got shoved back down to my knees on the ground. I lost my balance because I got bumped and pushed and then somebody covered me in a jacket that weighed like a thousand pounds. I fell back and George was on me, licking my face as I tried to breathe. I was winded and when I finally grabbed the dog and hugged him so he'd stop I realized four men were standing over me. Not one looked pleased. One guy in particular looked like he wanted to strangle me right there in the middle of the street.

"Two years of undercover work blown in seconds," he told me icily.

What to say? "Sorry?"

"Who the fuck are you?" he snarled at me. The scowl looked permanent.

I coughed twice. My ribs hurt. "Jory Keyes."

"What are you doing here, man?" one of the others snapped at me.

I tried to take in some air. "I came to get the dog," I told them, which was really all the explanation I had. It had seemed like such a nothing task at the time.

"The dog?"

Their expressions were priceless and even lying there on the pavement I had to smile.

* * * *

If I didn't watch so much TV, real life wouldn't be so disappointing. As it was, I was expecting the interrogation room from Law & Order and the reality was nothing like that. It wasn't dark, it was really bright, and the metal table was bolted to the floor. The chairs were cold and metal without any padding, and just basically had no atmosphere or character to speak of. It was just plain anticlimactic and so I was bored. I had an ice pack on the back of my head, a Sprite for my stomach, which had gotten queasy when my adrenaline ran out, and a pen and paper so I could write down everything I remembered. I had recounted what I'd seen to a lot of different people ten different ways. When Anna had come to get George, they wouldn't let me see her. She was being taken somewhere safe right that second. I couldn't blame them. I didn't want her to get hurt either. My head was down on my folded arms when the door opened. So many people had been in and out that I didn't even look up.

"Mr. Keyes."

I rolled my head sideways and realized that Detective Sam Kage was back. He was, I'd decided, the one that hated me the most. I had screwed up his undercover investigation with my need to be rescued. He and his fellow vice detectives had to break cover, turn their guns on Brian Minor, and save me. The only luck they had all night was that Brian had actually killed a man in cold blood and they had an eyewitness to that... me. He was going to jail for a long time. It was just as good, they said, as racketeering, bribery, blackmail, and extortion. First-degree murder had its own time frame that worked for them.

"Sit up and look at me."

I lifted my head off my arm and leaned back in my chair, staring at him. He had changed out of his Kevlar body armor and was now in a shirt and tie. He was trying to pull off mild-mannered police detective but I wasn't buying it. I'd seen the beast inside of him already. The others, his tall but balding captain, his dark sort of eastern-European-looking partner and the two others, who looked like poster boys for the Marine Corps, all of them were nicer than Detective Kage. I wanted anyone else but him in the room with me.

"Mr. Keyes, you--"

"What kind of gun is that?" I asked, pointing to his holster.

"What?"

"What kind of gun?"

"Why?"

I shrugged. "I was just wondering."

"It's a Glock 22."

"Okay," I yawned, letting out a deep sigh. That exchange had maybe killed a second and a half. What was next on the agenda?

"Tell me about yourself, Mr. Keyes."

I looked back at him. "Whaddya wanna know?"

"Where are you from?"

"Kentucky," I said flatly because I usually said LA or Miami just to make it sound more glamorous, but I figured he was looking for the truth, being a police officer and all.

"How long have you been in Chicago?"

"I moved here when I was seventeen."

"You run away from home?"

"Nope. I graduated from high school when I was seventeen. See my birthday's in January so I started school at four instead of--"

"Can we move on?"

Rude much

"Well?"

"Rude much?" I said out loud instead of just thinking it in my head.

"Sorry, go on."

"Never mind," I snapped at him. I hated getting caught rambling on to people that didn't give a crap. It was mortifying.

"Just talk already, sorry for interrupting."

He wasn't sorry, but I figured if I were waiting for actual sincerity I'd be sitting there a long time. I was better off just letting it go. What did it matter to me if he cared or didn't? "Okay, so I got here and got a job and I've been here ever since."

"Uh-huh. So what, your family's still there in Kentucky?"

"No," I breathed out. "There was only my grandmother and she died when I was ten."

"Where are your folks?"

"I have no idea."

"You have no idea where your father is."

He said it like he didn't believe it. "No. I don't even know who he is. It doesn't even say on my birth certificate, and my mother left when I was like three months old or something. Her name was... is Mandy, but that's all I can tell you. She never came back so I've never met her."

"I see. So you were raised by your grandmother, and when she died, what?"

"I went into foster care."

He looked straight at me. "Any horror stories?"

"No, I was lucky. I lived in a group home from the time I was ten to the time when I graduated from high school."

"You close to any of those people?"

"No. Why?"

"Why not?"

"I dunno. You're acting like I have a character deficit or something."

"Was I?"

"It was implied," I assured him.

He grunted.

"It was a group home, Detective. It wasn't the whole mother/father deal. It was like a dorm. I wasn't close to anyone. They could have cared less if I was there or not."

"Did that bother you?"

"I don't need some bullshit psych eval here, all right? It was what it was, it doesn't matter."

He nodded. "So you graduated and what?"

"I bought a bus ticket from Lexington, Kentucky to Chicago, Illinois."

"And so you got here and then what happened?

"Why is this important?"

"I just need some background, Mr. Keyes, if you don't mind."

Did I mind? "Okay, so I got here and got the job I have now. I worked all through college and when I was done I decided to stay instead of doing something else."

"And where do you work?"

"I work at Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan," I said proudly.

"By your tone I'm assuming I'm supposed to know what that is."

I felt my brows draw together.

"What's with the look?"

"Are you kidding?"

"No I'm not kidding."

"You're serious?"

"I said I was."

"Huh."

"What is whatever you said?"

"Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan... it's one of the premier architectural firms in the city."

"Uh-huh."

"My boss, Dane Harcourt, he's the main architect. Miles Brown does interior design and Sherman Cogan is the landscape architect."

"What does main architect mean?"

"He designs houses."

He stared at me a long minute. "Does he?"

"Yes. He's very famous."

"If he's so famous why haven't I ever heard of him?"

I scoffed at him. "I bet the people you haven't heard of could fill a book, Detective."

"You're a punk, you know that?"

I smiled at him. "Particularly nice comeback, Detective."

"So that's it, no family, just you?"

"Just me."

"This'll be easy then."

"What will?"

"Making you disappear."

"I'm sorry?"

"Protective custody, witness protection... are you starting to get it?"

I shook my head. "Just tell me when I can go home."

His eyes narrowed more than they already were. "Are you stupid?"

I just waited, staring at him.

"Mr. Keyes, you are never going home again. You are going into the witness protection program. Federal marshals will be here in the morning to transport you to--"

"Yeah, right," I got up. I was tired of being treated like I did something wrong. "I'm going now. I'm beat and I gotta go to work in the morning."

"Mr. Keyes, people want to kill you. Do you understand that? Brian Minor is very well connected and--"

"I gotta go," I said as I got up and headed for the door.

"Mr. Keyes, you are going into protective custody."

"Uh-huh," I scoffed at him, stopping at the door only as long as it took to open it and go through. At the end of the hall, Brian was being walked to wherever he was being taken by two uniformed police officers.

"Jory!" he yelled at me. "You're a dead man! Do you understand me? Dead!"

I smirked at him and flipped him off. He yanked free and came charging down the hall toward me. I had no idea what he thought he was going to do to me, handcuffed like he was, but he came anyway. He'd always been so big and brutish, one of those bull in a china shop kind of guys. A lot of big men were still fluid when they moved, like their size was perfect for them, but Brian had always seemed unaware of how strong he was or the confines of his own shoulders and legs. Plodding like an animal was what had forever come to mind. So when he got to me I ducked and crouched and swept my leg underneath him. He went down with a hard face-plant into the tile floor at my feet. I stood there a second and then very theatrically stepped over him.

"You sonofabitch!" he shrieked at me.

"Shut the hell up," I said irritably.

"Jory!" he screamed at me as I jumped over his thrashing legs before he was buried under five policemen. "I'm gonna fuckin' kill you... you fuckin' faggot! You hear me! Jory! You goddamn cocksucker!"

"Oh, go to hell, Brian," I groaned, turning to walk away from him. "And that whole faggot crap is so old. Who even uses that word anymore?"

"Jory!" he screamed after me.

"People with pickup trucks and gun racks, that's who," I chuckled, my own laughter sounding a little unhinged. I was ready to pass out.

"Jory!" His voice had lost some of its power but he was still shrieking.

I headed toward the stairs.

"Mr. Keyes!"

I pivoted around and Detective Kage was there with his nice captain that I'd met earlier and another of the square-cut jaw/square-cut hair guys who had been on the street with him. He did the two-fingered poke into my collarbone like he was trying to drill through my skin.

"Where the hell do you think--"

"Sam," the captain cautioned him, putting up his hand. "Let's not--"

"He's an idiot," he gestured at me, "and he'll be dead this time tomorrow."

"And who would do that? Brian?" I smirked at him. "Gimme a break."

He gestured at me again but said nothing.

"Mr. Keyes," the other detective began, his voice gentle, soothing. "Even though you think of Mr. Minor as simply the sonofabitch husband of one of your girlfriends, you must believe us when we tell you the man is not that benign. He's a drug dealer, a murderer, and someone you don't want to cross. There are a lot of people that don't want him in the position of choosing between jail time or talking about them. You alone have the power to put him behind bars. Without you, he walks. Do you understand that?"

"I get it," I told him. "I do. I will testify. I will do whatever you need so he never sees Anna again as long as he lives. I promise, but seriously--I have a life. I mean, I get from being here for the last five hours that you guys don't think being someone's assistant is important. But I promise you that, to my boss, I actually matter. I've got so much shit to do, you have no idea." I let out a quick breath, finally shaking my head. "Call me and tell me what day I need to appear in court." I said, heading down the stairs to the exit.

"Mr. Keyes."

I sighed and turned around, looking up at the captain.

"They'll come after people you love."

I shrugged. "Good luck finding any." I said, before I turned back away from him.

Outside the air was cold. I had forgotten I was still in my dancing clothes, which consisted that night of a black spandex T-shirt, tight, brown, distressed boot-cut jeans and motorcycle boots. So because it was November, I was freezing. It smelled like it was going to rain and the breeze was icy. My teeth started to chatter as I looked for a cab.

A car slowed down beside me and I heard the sound of the automatic window going down. When I turned, a guy was smiling at me from the driver's side.

I waited for the come-on line.

"Hey, man, you need a lift?"

The whole ick factor of some middle-aged man in a van trying to pick me up in the same ride that he took his kids to school in made my skin crawl.

"I'm talking to you, pretty boy."

"No thanks," I said quickly, hoping he'd just drive away. "I don't need a ride."

"C'mon," he persisted, "how much?"

"I'm not hustling, man, I'm just walkin'," I said, moving faster.

"Sure you are," he leered at me. "Get in."

And I thought, it's the club clothes outside of the club, downtown, walking the streets alone at two in the morning. I couldn't fault his logic. I had rent boy written all over me. "I...."

The horn scared us both. I jumped, and the guy was so startled that he gunned the motor and drove away. It would have been funny if my heart weren't pounding so hard. I shivered in spite of myself and looked up when someone shouted my name.

I saw the enormous SUV then, named after something nautical, black and shiny, and through the lowered window was Detective Kage. He was motioning me over. I shoved my hands down in my pockets as I walked over to see what he wanted.

"Get in," he snapped at me as soon as I peered in the window.

"I--"

"Mr. Keyes," he said sharply, and the exasperation was not lost on me. "You're this close to being put in the vehicle whether you like it or not."

The way he said the word vehicle, so clinical, so like the cop that he was. Step away from the vehicle, put your hands on top of the vehicle, get in the vehicle.... it was funny. "Oh yeah?" I baited him because I figured I could move before he got a hold of me. "You think so?"

"Yeah," he warned me, his gaze level and dark. "I think so."

And it wasn't so much the ominous tone or the way he was looking at me as the muscle that flexed in his jaw. I realized I was closer to jeopardy than I realized. He was bigger than me, so the chances that he could hurt me were pretty good.

I opened the door and climbed up into the seat, swinging the heavy door shut hard.

He grunted at me. "Put on your goddamn seat belt."

"Do you know where I live?" I asked him.

"Yes," he almost growled. He had one of those voices that was low and husky, the kind that under other circumstances I would have found sexy as hell.

"I don't live in the city." I wanted to make sure he knew where he was going. "I live just on the other side of Austin Avenue in Oak Park."

He didn't respond so I gave up. There was some cowboy crap playing on the radio but it was low so I didn't complain.

"Did you hear me?" I asked him, checking.

"I know where you live," he said fast, clearly exasperated. "It was one of the many questions you answered for me, as you may recall."

I rolled my eyes as my phone rang. "Hello?" I answered.

"Where the hell did you go?" Taylor Grant asked me irritably.

"To get a friend out of a jam," I smiled, slouching down in the seat.

"Were you gonna come back or call?"

I chuckled. "I thought that wasn't our deal. Either one of us could split at any time. It's your rule," I reminded him cheerfully.

Long silence.

"Right?"

"Yeah, right," he said, the annoyance clear in his voice. "So where are you?"

"On my way home."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Tell me where that is."

"Nah. I'll call you," I told him.

"Jory," he said softly. "Please lemme see--"

"Later," I yawned and hung up. I wasn't in the mood for company. I just wanted to go home, shower off the night, and pass out in my bed.

"Friend of yours?"

"Not really," I told him, "just a guy."

"You got a lot of guys?"

I turned slowly to look at him.

"What?" he asked gruffly.

"What kind of question is that?"

"Fair, I would say."

I went back to staring out the window.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-two." I clipped my answer, trying not to snap.

"Twenty-two," he repeated.

"Yeah."

"How can you afford to live alone?"

It was a weird question. "I told you already, I have a good job."

"And what else?"

I turned again to look at him. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"I think you know."

"I don't think I do, Detective. You need to spell it out for me."

"Fine. Does some guy help you out with your rent in exchange for fucking you?"

That was definitely clear. "No," I barely got out through my clenched jaw.

"No?"

"How do you know I'm even gay, Detective?"

He glanced at me, scoffing. "Dressed like that?"

"You know what, just lemme out."

"Knock it off. Don't be so dramatic." He was annoyed and his voice was dripping with it. "All you guys are so goddamn dramatic."

All you guys? "You mean gay guys?"

"Just drop it, all right? I'm tired and I don't feel like getting into a pissing contest with you. I'm driving you 'cause if I don't, you're gonna freeze to death. You don't even have a jacket."

"I'll take my chances."

"Just sit there and shut up."

And I granted his request and didn't say another word to him for the rest of the ride. When he dumped me in front of the old Victorian house that had been converted into four apartments, I got out. I slammed the door and ran across the lawn without a backward glance. I didn't check to see if he waited.

When I got inside I immediately fell down on my bed, fully clothed, with my shoes still on. I was exhausted. Having people shooting at you as you ran for your life was really very draining.

* * * *

Chapter Two

By the time I got to work it was almost ten on Wednesday morning and I felt like turning around and going back home. Riding into the city on the subway was usually almost fun. I liked seeing all the same faces every morning and talking to people I barely knew. The problem was we had an icy rain that morning that made everyone soggy and cranky and impatient with the routine inconvenience of being packed together like sardines. Once I got downtown I had to walk two blocks over to Cullen's and pick up my boss's car. He had called me at six in the morning to tell me that the mechanic forgot to drop it off at his house, so I had to make it happen. I had to bring the car to the office. For the billionth time I remembered why I didn't own a vehicle. Driving in the city was hell. Between dodging traffic, having people blow their horns at me and suicidal pedestrians, I was ready to scream. I had to be careful not to hit any parked cars on the tight streets, remember which way all the streets went, and try not to drive into a pothole that I could lose a wheel in. I thanked God that Dane's BMW was an automatic; I would have been dead otherwise. People almost always touch your back bumper at a stop, and when you're driving a stick shift it's so hard not to roll backwards just a teeny bit and nail somebody. When a horn blast startled me, I made the light just in time. It felt like it took a year to go ten blocks.

I stood in the lobby and shook like a dog while I took off my topcoat and stamped my feet. Piper Dowling, our front desk receptionist, was watching me, giggling the whole time.

"What?" I asked, looking over at her. She was a vision, like she was every morning, all big honey-blonde curls, soft blue eyes, and perfect, flawless makeup that accentuated her beauty.

"You look really good all wet, angel."

I shot her a look, which sent her into peals of snorting laughter. When she recovered, she let me know that the coffee was still hot in the break room.

"Morning," Sonja Lawson called out to me from her desk as I walked by.

"Hey," I greeted her, smiling. "How are you this morning?"

She shrugged and I stopped before I hung up my coat on the vintage hat rack.

"What?" I found myself asking before I could stop myself. I didn't really care what was wrong; I found her altogether boring. She didn't date, didn't buy designer clothes or shoes, and didn't watch any of the same shows I did. We had absolutely zilch in common.

"Well, we're coming up on three months, J, and I still don't know if I'm staying here permanently or not."

I had no idea either.

"I mean the only reason I'm even here is because his office is ten times busier than any of the other partners. Everybody wants him to do their homes, not Mr. Cogan or Mr. Brown."

"Sherman Cogan is a landscape architect, Sonja," I sighed, having explained that to her like a million times. "And Miles Brown's an interior designer. They don't all do the same thing."

"No, I know, but Dane's office is the busiest because he's the best."

As usual she didn't get why but I just let it go.

"Jory, I want to stay here."

"Yeah I know." She'd only told me that every single day since she started. From the day Dane had come into the office and she had looked up from her desk into his cool gray eyes, from that moment she had wanted to stay.

She sighed heavily. "I love everybody here."

I knew exactly who it was that she loved and wanted to be loved by in return.

"Jory, please."

"The decision has nothing to do with me." I said, shaking as much water off my coat as I could before walking over to my desk, squishing the whole way.

"What'd you do, swim to work?" She chuckled, momentarily distracted from her campaign to stay in Dane's office.

I grunted. "Yeah, it felt like that."

"You know what I'd really like?"

"I have no idea," I said, looking over at her.

"Your job." She smiled big.

"And what would I do?"

"My job."

"Yeah, right. Can you even imagine me being cute and perky all day long?"

She laughed at me as I cocked an eyebrow for her benefit. I gave her a lot of credit for the smile she kept plastered on her face for eight hours a day. No way was I capable of such forced charm. My job had more wiggle room to be bitchy.

I got to contact clients, sit in on initial meetings, go with my boss to clients' homes, and make sure that no one without an appointment ever got to see Dane Harcourt in the flesh. I also made a lot of trips to the dry cleaners and ordered flowers for whomever he was dating at the time. Picking out birthday and Christmas presents also seemed to be in my job description. I didn't particularly mind that, though--it was fun. Besides, I liked it when people complimented Dane on his taste and he had no idea what the hell they were talking about, because he forgot to ask me what I bought. Since I carried a Platinum American Express card with my name on it, and I was the one that reconciled his statement, nine times out of ten he had no idea what he had spent or on whom. It was nice to be trusted implicitly, and I found that I was somewhat addicted to it. When Sonja's intercom buzzed suddenly and an annoyed voice asked her if I had arrived yet, I was amazed at how quickly all my good feelings fled.

"Yes, I have," I answered loudly, letting out a deep breath and raking my fingers through my damp curls before flopping down into my chair

"Come in here now," Dane snapped brusquely, and the intercom went dead.

I groaned loudly.

"Shhh," Sonja warned me.

"Why?"

"He'll hear you."

"And if he does?"

"I just think you should be sweet to him."

I was instantly suspicious. "Why?"

"Because he might have had a long morning."

"Why?" I asked again, and I could feel my brows drawing together.

"Well," she said hesitantly, "Therese Warner called like an hour ago and told me she was coming by."

"That wouldn't do it," I said, standing, fussing with my sweater, my dress pants, making sure I looked good before I walked into his office, checking my shoes. "Unless you let her talk to him."

Silence, so I looked up at her. She looked guilty as hell.

"Oh shit," I groaned. "Are you kidding me?"

"What's the big deal?"

"Sonja," I whined. "C'mon."

"I forgot that you told me she wasn't to be put through." She took a deep shaky breath. "So when she told me she was coming by, I asked her if she wanted to speak to Mr. Harcourt."

"Perfect," I grumbled. Wednesday was getting better and better. "Anything else you wanna tell me before I go in?"

"I put Mr. Reid through too."

I rubbed the bridge of my nose and counted to ten. My friend, Evan, always said that it was about visualization. You had to imagine your happy place and you would be there instead of in that moment. Unfortunately it didn't seem to be working. It really wasn't such a big deal that he was irritated; he was irritated with me ninety percent of the time. The problem was sitting through the lecture that always followed. The man lived to reiterate my mistakes.

"I'm dead. I'm so dead."

"Why? It's my fault, not yours."

"But I'm responsible for everything that happens to him at work."

"She giggled. "C'mon, J. You're taking yourself a little seriously right now."

I shook my head. "No, I mean stuff that has to do with the office, that's my baby. I'm supposed to make sure that things run smooth here."

"I don't think it's really that big a deal."

"If you knew him better you'd know what this is really about."

"What's it about?"

"Following directions," I told her just as the door to Dane's office opened and he filled the doorway. I couldn't stifle my groan in time.

"Has the meaning of the word now escaped you completely?"

"No sir." I said getting up and following him back into his office. I was careful to close the door quietly behind me.

"I want you to make arrangements with the temp agency to have Miss Lawson transferred out off this office as soon as possible. I think our contact over there is Darcy somebody. Call her."

"Pardon?" That I hadn't expected.

"I want her out of my office. Preferably today." He clipped his words. It was so early for that.

"But she does such a good--"

"I don't care where she goes," he said crossly, cutting me off. "I just want her out of here. She can't follow simple directions."

"Why? It was a simple mistake about letting Miss Warner and Mr. Reid talk to you this morning," I defended her, sitting down in the chair in front of his desk. "It won't happen again. I'll explain that--"

"Do you see that?" he said sharply, cutting me off again. He motioned to the flowers on his desk that I hadn't noticed. They were long-stemmed red roses arranged with baby's breath and they were absolutely beautiful. The vase they were in was lovely too, very expensive.

"Yeah."

"Yes," he corrected me. He hated yeah.

"Yes," I said again.

"And?"

"And what?" I asked, my tone a little sharper than I meant to.

He cocked an eyebrow at me like he was waiting for me to say something. I looked at him and waited. He laced his fingers slowly and continued to stare at me. I looked into his cool gray eyes and noticed for the billionth time how beautiful they were with the flecks of silver in them and how much darker they got when he was annoyed. And then it hit me.

He could tell I'd had a revelation, and smiled smugly.

"Did Sonja leave you flowers again?"

"Yes." He smiled but it never touched his eyes. They didn't sparkle like they did when he was actually happy. When he was really pleased there was a warm glow that was irresistible.

"She's got a huge crush on you, you know." I smiled because it was sweet.

"Yes, I know."

"But that's not--"

"I've told you and I've told her that I do not appreciate her advances toward me no matter how innocent they may be. I gave specific directions that the behavior needed to stop." He spoke very slowly, very crisply, spacing each of his words so I'd be sure to hear them. "It is not appropriate office decorum and will no longer be tolerated. Between the flowers and the little notes and the chocolates on Valentine's Day, I'm done."

"What if I make her promise?"

"No," he snapped.

"But, Boss, it's just not--"

"Call Darcy and tell her that I want her moved today and a new receptionist in here tomorrow. I want it done before lunch."

"Seriously?"

"Yes," he assured me.

"What if Darcy's got no one else to send us? You're saying you'd rather answer your own phone than have her here?"

"You answer my phone, not her."

This was an excellent point.

"I want her out," he repeated.

"But what if they've got nowhere to send her? Maybe then she can't afford rent

or--"

"I don't care."

"Wow. That's a little harsh, don't you think?"

"I don't," he said irritably, and I could see that his patience was at an end. I knew instantly that there had to be something else bothering him. He hated to be irritated, hated repeating himself, but minor annoyances never got to him. He was a rock. "She goes today. I've had it. I will not be bothered every day for no reason."

"But--"

"She's gone. I gave her every chance."

"Why should she be punished because she finds you irresistible?" I thought maybe I could appeal to his vanity. "I would think it would nice to walk into the office first thing every morning and know that someone thought you were the absolute epitome of everything that was right with the world. I know I'd like it. It would be very flattering."

"Unlike others...." Meaning me, of course. And I got it even before he let it hang in the air between us. "I don't need my ego perpetually stroked. She needs to go, and go now. And furthermore, I don't think you would find it flattering, I think you'd find it to be more like harassment. At least I would hope you would have that much integrity." After a beat he asked, "Do you?"

I looked down and counted to ten again so I wouldn't tell him where to go. He could be so arrogant that sometimes just thinking about telling him off made it almost impossible not to. When I looked back up he was staring at me again with the dark scowl he held the patent for. After a minute I squinted at him, making his head small, thinking how easy it would be to crush. How satisfying if his eyes bugged out when it exploded.

"You're doing that thing with your eyes."

"What thing?"

"That thing you do where you make my head small and then think how easy it would be to crush it."

I grunted. He knew me too well.

"Listen, just tell Miss Lawson that I'm sure she'll be happier elsewhere. Also," he added, pulling an envelope out of the top drawer of his desk, "give this to Miss Warner when she comes by. I don't have time to speak to her."

I took it and got up to leave.

"Don't you want to know what it is?" he asked slowly. "You're usually so inquisitive."

He meant nosy.

"Jory?"

"You mean nosy." I said flatly.

"Is that what I said?" He was back to clipping his words.

"No."

"So do you plan to be surly all day then?"

"No."

"I see," he nodded, taking a breath and getting up to go to the window of his office. "Tell Miss Warner that in lieu of my attendance at the Bachelor Auction next week, I've given her a check for ten thousand dollars. That's far more then she would have gotten had I participated, so she should be well pleased."

It was an AIDS benefit, and in my opinion he was shortchanging himself. I could just see Miss Therese Warner and Miss Lacey Collins waging the battle of the pocketbooks over who would have my boss as a dinner companion that night. I was sure it would go well into the thousands, much more than ten. Therese would see this as her opportunity to talk to him and convince him he was wrong about breaking it off with her. Lacey would be in defense mode, trying to keep all other women away from her man. She was the flavor of the month, and she did have Dane Harcourt after all, for the moment.

"What are you thinking?"

I looked over to where he was and noticed he was staring at me again. "Nothing."

"Tell me," he ordered, walking back to his desk and passing me the roses. "You think it's not enough? I'm not doing all that I can? I should do more for AIDS research?"

"Everyone should, but that's not it."

"Well, then?" He waited, and his gray eyes were back to mine.

"I just think that you'd have raised more money if you'd gone."

"Why?"

I smiled in spite of myself. He sounded like he was fishing for a compliment. "Isn't it obvious?"

"Not to me."

"Okay, I see it starting off with everybody bidding and then finally it'll come down to Miss Warner and Miss Lawson fighting it out for the privilege of your company."

"You do," he said tiredly.

"I do," I told him. Hell, he'd asked. "And maybe Miss Palmer and Miss Smythe will want to bid too. It'll be a feeding frenzy."

"I see."

"Don't you think so?"

"Well, we'll never know, will we?"

"Guess not." I shrugged, putting his car keys that I still had in my hand down on his desk.

"Also, should Mr. Reid come by, he is to be removed at once. I've already made my feelings perfectly clear to him on the subject of any unsolicited visitations to this office. So, should he come by, he knows what reception to expect. You should alert building security at once. Am I making myself clear?"

"Crystal."

"Good."

"He called me last night," I threw out, remembering having seen the familiar number on my cell phone after Detective Kage dropped me off. I hadn't even heard it ring while I was taking my hour-long shower. I had to wash away all traces of the night with the hottest water possible. It had felt amazing.

"Who?"

"Mr. Reid." I said, reaching the door.

"Wait," he ordered before I could open it. "When did he call? After work?"

"Yeah."

"Yes."

"Yes," I repeated, rolling my eyes.

"He called your cell?"

"Yes but I didn't actually talk to him. I was supposed to call him, he left a number."

"And were you going to call?"

"Yes," I almost snapped at him. "I have to tell him not to call me again because if you're not talking to him then I'm certainly not going to. It's none of my business whatever he wants to talk about."

"You're dying to know what that's all about, aren't you?"

He could be so conceited. Here I had this huge event transpire in my life and I wasn't going to tell him, but he thought I was just burning up with a need to know why Mr. Caleb Reid had basically stalked him for the last three weeks.

"Jory."

I looked back at him. "You're right; I used to want to know."

"But you don't anymore."

"Now it doesn't matter so much." And even as I realized how irrational I was being, I was still annoyed. Logically, being mad at him for not caring about something I'd never told him was ridiculous. Unfortunately, I got a D in logic in college. I only passed because I had tried so hard and my professor knew it. I still remember her shaking her head, asking me how in the world I couldn't grasp the material after spending time with both her and the grad student that was assisting her in class. Half the problem had been that her so-called teaching assistant had been much more interested in sleeping with me than in helping me learn anything. But I really was so seriously right-brained that it was a wonder I could walk a straight line. Time had done nothing to help this.

"Jory."

"Hmmm?"

"You're a million miles away. What's going on with you?"

This was my opening to come clean. "Nothing."

"Why don't you care about Mr. Reid anymore?"

I shrugged.

He was searching my eyes. "Your curiosity borders on compulsive and you are incessant with your questioning. What's changed?"

"It's not my business."

"Which I've pointed out a million times and has never once stopped you."

"Well, it will from now on."

He gave me the slightest smile. "So, you're growing up is what you're telling me."

I let my irritation out in the sharp exhale of breath and turned for the door.

He walked over to stand in front of me. "Has he called you before?"

"No."

"And how did he get your number?"

"Someone gave it to him."

"Who?"

"I have no idea." I yawned involuntarily.

"Miss Lawson?"

"I dunno."

"You know," he said, closing the door as I opened it. "And it matters to me and that's why we're going to rid ourselves of this little problem."

"You're blowing this way out of proportion."

"Am I? Is my number being given out as well?"

"Nobody but me has that number here at work." I assured him. "And I don't want to die young--younger, so don't worry. You're safe."

"It would be nice for you to know that someone cares as much about your privacy as you seem to care about mine."

"I don't seem to care, boss," I said tightly, emphasizing the word seem just as he had. "I do care."

"Well, we'll see, won't we?"

He was using his snide tone. I closed my eyes for a second so I wouldn't scream. Instead, once I took a breath, I asked him if that was all. He didn't answer so I tilted my head back so I could see his face. "Is that all?" I repeated.

"It is," he said, walking back to his desk.

I left his office and walked out to the main lobby with the roses.

"For me, doll?" Piper asked.

I grunted at her and went back.

Later that morning I was looking for my green highlighter as Therese Warner turned the corner and entered the outer office. As she headed toward Dane's door, she thanked Sonja for putting her through to him earlier in the morning.

"Miss Warner," I called before she turned the knob.

She looked at me over her shoulder as I came around my desk. "I have business to discuss with Mr. Harcourt." Her tone was sharp.

"No, I'm afraid you don't." I handed her the envelope. "Mr. Harcourt regrets that he will be unable to attend the benefit next week, but has provided you with a check for ten thousand dollars to make up for his absence at the charity event."

"Did you practice that all morning?" she said tightly.

Funny, but when she was dating my boss, she thought it was marvelous the way I brushed off his old flames, and we got along great. I liked her because she was so talkative. Most of the others didn't bother to speak to me at all, except to order me to do something. Oh Jory, be a dear and do this that and that and the other for me. Dane will be delighted that you're doing me this small favor. Therese had been different. She would sit in the chairs outside his office and visit with me, asking if I was dating any cute boys, telling me that she wished her eyelashes were as long as mine, her eyes as big and dark.

"I swear, Jory," she would lean on the desk, "your eyes look just like melting chocolate, that beautiful deep brown with those flecks of gold. I just hate you. And all that thick, blond hair you've got, my goodness, it's a wonder you don't have a stalker. You look more like a model than an assistant."

And I'd laughed because she was funny but now our days of getting along were over.

"No, I told her. "I'm just telling you what he said."

She took the envelope. "Why isn't he going?"

"He didn't say."

"I'm sure you know, he tells you everything."

Such a lie. "He doesn't."

"He told me he does."

It was too bad that Therese didn't know when she was being baited. He'd probably said he told me everything to see what her reaction would be. I knew how he operated. It was too bad she didn't. "He didn't mean it."

"Dane means everything he says."

"You think?"

"I have to speak to him," she said, leaving my desk and walking back to his door. "It's very important."

"Is it?"

"I have to speak to him," she mumbled again as I walked up beside her. "He's not taking my calls. Here, at the club... he doesn't answer his cell...."

"Oh," I needed to assure her, "that has nothing to do with you. He's got other stuff going on."

"So I'm just what, another irritation for him?" she snipped at me cattily.

"That's not what I meant," I told her seriously. There's nothing more irritating to me then having people misconstrue my words or my motivation. I hated people that assumed things.

"I need to see him, Jory," she said softly, trying to appeal to me like we were pals.

"Take the check and leave, Miss Warner," I told her, moving her hand gently off the doorknob. "He doesn't want to see you. Don't force a scene that you'll both regret."

"I wanted to marry him."

"I have no doubt that you did."

"One day everything was perfect and the next day he said he thought it would be better if we started seeing other people."

I nodded. I knew all this already. He gave all of them the same speech, the "you're-just-too-good-for-me speech" when he needed air and had to get away. The key to the man, the same as most, was to give him tons of space and act like he didn't matter at all. Be there when he wanted you and make yourself scarce when he didn't. But not one of them had ever been able to pull it off. They started out all outrageous and aloof and then fell hard and wanted to smother him and keep him locked up. He got under their skin so fast; the desire to cage him came with panicky obsession almost overnight. And I saw him recoil and then retreat behind his crazy jam-packed schedule and me. He loved to use me as a shield, sometimes even in person. He would show up with me in tow just to drive a point home. Dinner dates became dinner meetings, weekend retreats became working weekends, whenever he was looking for distance... he brought me along as a buffer. Whenever he wanted the person he was with to stay back.

"I am so in love with him I can't see straight."

I was brought back sharply to the present. "I'm sorry, Miss Warner. Whaddya want me to say?"

She let out a shaky breath.

What was I supposed to do? It had to be agony for her. All she had to do was open the paper to the society page to see a picture of another woman on her ex-lover's arm. It had to be maddening, especially since he'd belonged to her such a short time ago.

"How can he just turn it off and forget about me so quickly?"

She was asking the question to the air, addressing no one in particular. I doubt she remembered I was even there. I just stood beside her looking stupid because I didn't know what else to do. If we were friends I could console her; sit up nights with her, make her go out on blind dates just so she'd be out and not stuck in the house, and stay up late and let her cry on my shoulder for hours. If she were my friend I'd entertain her constantly for as long as it took to get Dane Harcourt out of her system. The problem was Therese Warner was not my friend, so I felt awkward and embarrassed and desperate to leave the room.

"Good morning, Mrs. Bradley," Sonja said from behind us. We both turned and I offered a hand to the lady who joined us at the door to Dane's office.

Mrs. Miriam Bradley took my hand and squeezed it tightly. She seemed genuinely pleased to see me and I felt like I knew her, as many times as we'd spoken on the phone.

"How are you, Jory?"

"Fine, thank you. Are you ready for your initial meeting with Mr. Harcourt?"

"I've been waiting for this for months. I'm more than ready."

"Terrific," I said cheerfully. I stepped aside so I could open the door for her and make sure Therese didn't get in at the same time. Not that she was trying to.

Mrs. Bradley didn't enter the room, but stood and looked at Therese. "Have we met? You seem very familiar to me."

Therese smiled automatically. "I think we have a membership at the same club in Highland Park. I seem to recall seeing you there. My father is Simon Warner."

"Yes, that's it," she smiled, offering Therese her hand. She was so beautiful and graceful. I knew women that didn't look that good at thirty let alone at sixty. I didn't understand guys that were in their fifties and sixties that went for trophy wives, when there were stunning women out there who were their own age. But I didn't get gay men that went for guys half their age either. I guess a midlife crisis was the same no matter who you wanted in bed with you. "You're Therese Warner. Well, my dear, I'm so glad to finally get to meet you in person."

Therese thanked her tightly, trying hard not to cry.

"Come in, Mrs. Bradley," Dane called from inside his office.

I closed the door behind her after she told Therese that she hoped they would be able to play a set of tennis together very soon. I turned back to Therese and begged her to leave.

"I want him to see me."

"He doesn't want to see you."

"Why? What did I do wrong?"

"I'm sure you haven't done anything wrong."

"Has he said something?" she brightened instantly. God, she was hoping so hard, I was sorry I'd said anything at all.

"No," I mumbled. "He hasn't said a word. But he's going to come out of his office in a minute, and I think you should leave before that and try and talk to him another time."

"How am I supposed to do that? I can't call him here and I can't call him at home. He doesn't answer his cell and he won't speak to me in public.... I've tried to--to talk to him and he just won't--won't do...." She trailed off, beginning to tear up.

I shook my head. "There's something really bothering him, Miss Warner. I would just give him some time, if I were you, to sort through--"

"So you think everything will be all right then?"

"I don't know that I'm in any position to--"

"But you know him so well, Jory," she said, cutting me off. "Please tell me what you think."

She wanted some kind of encouragement so badly. I sighed heavily. "Miss Warner, I don't know what--"

The office door suddenly opened and Dane stepped out. He looked at Therese, brows furrowed, and she started to cry. He took a deep breath and rubbed his forehead hard. I knew that particular movement well. I got it a lot. Like when he would talk to me and I would ask him questions instead of answering. I couldn't help it; I liked to delve into his life. Not that he ever let me but it never stopped me from trying.

He sighed deeply and put a hand on Therese's shoulder. "I want to apologize for what happened Saturday, I was not myself. I've had a lot of things on my mind lately, and I'm sorry it came to a head while I was speaking to you. I deeply regret having raised my voice to you. Please accept my apology."

"Of course," she breathed. I saw her melt just looking at him. She leaned toward him even as he took a step away.

"I should be more careful." He turned to me then and was going to say something, but stopped himself. He just looked at me and I stared back for a minute before I got uncomfortable.

"What?" I asked, feeling weird all of a sudden.

"What have you done about Miss Lawson?"

"I haven't had a chance to--"

"Do so now," he grumbled, turning back to Therese and giving her a little pat on the arm before dropping his hand from her shoulder. "I am sorry."

She just stared at him with this pained expression on her face.

His eyes fell to the floor and then were back to me like he was searching for something to say but was unable to find the words.

"What?" I repeated, keenly aware that Therese was staring at me instead of him.

"I'm hungry."

I smiled suddenly. I couldn't help it. "What do you want?"

"What do you want?"

I shook my head. "I'll just get you something."

"Something good," he muttered.

"Like I don't know what to get," I baited him, trying to get a response.

He raked his fingers through his thick hair, gave me a crooked grin, and then retreated back into his office and shut the door behind him.

"He's flippin' out," I said firmly, realizing I might be right. If Dane freaked out, then my sanity was sure to go. He was the steadiest person I knew.

"What's the matter with him?" Therese asked me, as she followed me back to my desk.

"He's flippin' out," I repeated before I sighed heavily. "Maybe you can give him a call later, huh?"

She nodded and left without another word.

"What did he mean when he asked you about me?" Sonja asked, looking at me pitifully.

I let out a deep breath before I reminded her about the roses I had taken to the lobby.

"Ohmygod," she said, her eyes filling up. "Is he really mad about that?"

"Not mad exactly," I said softly. "It's just that I think we've answered the question of whether or not you're going to be here permanently or not."

"We have?"

"Oh yeah," I drew it out.

"But I don't want to--"

"I'm sorry, Sonja," I cut her off quickly. "There's nothing that you or I can do about it now. He's made up his mind and when he does that, we both know that's it."

"It's just because of the flowers?"

"And all the other stuff," I sighed. "You've got a crush on him."

"He knows that?" She was incredulous.

"Everyone knows that."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. You've made it very clear that you're interested in having more than a professional relationship with him."

"Who doesn't?"

I thought about it for a minute. "Well, me for one," I told her honestly.

"You're a guy, Jory, and Dane's not gay."

There was that.

"But I swear to God, you're the only one I know who doesn't want him. Both Celia and Jill are crazy about him too."

"Maybe so, but maybe that also makes it possible for me to be the only one who can work for him. You obviously can't." I knew that Celia Johnson and Jill Kincaid were both crazy about my boss, but they didn't work for him so he didn't know they wanted to jump his bones. Celia worked for Miles Brown and Jill worked for the third partner at the firm, Sherman Cogan.

"But," her voice dropped to a whisper. "I think he's starting to like me."

You irritate the hell out of him, I thought, sitting down on the edge of her desk. "He likes you fine, Sonja, we're just going to make sure you get out of here before he starts not to like you."

"You don't know what it's like to be around him every day and not be able to touch him."

Oh God, all these lovesick puppies in the office

The door to Dane's office opened, and he and Mrs. Bradley came out. He walked over to me as I stood up, sliding off Sonja's desk..

"I'll be out of the office until twelve, so get lunch for us and be back so we can go over the schedule for the Mamon house. I expect to find only you here," he said, making a point of looking right at me when he said it. "We've got a lot to do."

"Yessir."

"Don't be late."

"No."

"And don't forget my lunch."

I felt the frown, my eyebrows lowering fast.

"Fine," he grumbled.

"Should I get you a drink too?" I asked sarcastically. I obviously needed everything to be spelled out for me in big, neon letters. Since I was such an idiot and all.

He gave me a smile then and turned and followed Mrs. Bradley out of the office. Mrs. Bradley herself was a case of puppy love; she had asked me over the phone, without even having laid eyes on the man--their conversations alone sparking more than professional interest--if Dane ever dated his clients. I told her that I didn't know. She confessed to me that she found him compelling and impossible to get out of her mind. Having heard so many other such confessions, I had merely smiled on my end and given her an appointment time.

"Oh Jory," Sonja sighed. "Can't you just tell him I'm sorry and it won't happen again?"

I shook my head and was going to try and say something comforting when my phone rang. I went around my desk and answered.

"So Thanksgiving's in two weeks. You know that, right?"

"Nick," I smiled into the receiver because I never forgot a voice. Sometimes it was a bad thing because it gave people I hardly knew the feeling that I cared more than I really did, which was the case here. "What're you talking about?"

"I'm just reminding you that you promised."

"I'm sorry, what did I promise?"

Heavy sigh from a guy I had been on two dates with. He was very nice, a resident at the county hospital. "You're spending four days with me. My parents have a cabin in Tahoe, I mean in Incline Village, but it's like the same thing. We can ski every day. You're gonna love it."

I doubted that, since skiing was not really my thing. "Huh."

"And I know you're not psyched about it, but I really want you to go and you can just sit around and relax and drink all weekend with me and my friends."

"I see." I chuckled.

"I already bought your ticket."

"I can pay you back."

He cleared his throat. "C'mon, Jory. I don't wanna be paid back. If you don't use the ticket, it's not like I can't use it or--"

"Oh good."

"Not oh good." He chuckled. "I want you to go with me. I have a reoccurring fantasy of being under a mound of blankets with you while snow is falling outside."

I smiled into the phone. "That's very romantic."

"Don't I know it!"

I laughed at him. "I'll think about it, all right?"

"Okay, that's fair. In the meantime, can I take you to dinner tomorrow night?"

"Actually I've got a--"

"Jory," he cut me off, and his voice dropped to a whisper. He was obviously somewhere other people were and he didn't want them to hear. "Baby, you can't just sleep with me once and blow me off."

"No? Most guys like it that way."

"I'm not most guys. I want to see you, I want to spend time with you. I have this great breakfast nook in my townhouse that you'd look great at first thing in the morning."

Which was nice. The problem was there was no spark at all. Not even a drop of chemistry. I had sex with him because I felt like if I didn't I would be a cocktease. I had a personal rule: if you made it to my apartment, you were getting laid. He'd been there on the second date, and even though I didn't really feel like it at that point, I had sex with him anyway. I knew I was in trouble when we were done and he wanted to spend the night. I lied to get him out of my bed because I didn't sleep with anyone. Screw, yes; cuddle up with, no. I'd never loved anyone enough or trusted anyone enough to let them spend the night.

"Listen," I said gently. "Why don't I call you later after I see if my boss is gonna need me tomorrow night or not."

"Oh, you gotta work. I'm sorry, I thought you were trying to blow me off."

I was, but it was nicer this way. "No."

"Okay. Great. Call me later."

"I will," I lied.

"Maybe I should run over there and write the number on your hand so you don't forget it."

"No-no-no." I chuckled into the receiver. "Don't do that. I've gotta go get my boss some lunch. I'm not even gonna be here in like five minutes."

"Then I'll leave it on your voicemail."

"You're persistent, Nicky, I'll give you that."

"You have no idea."

I hung up the phone, then thought about it, and was about to call him back and just be honest when Sonja plopped down on my desk.

"Talk to Dane one more time please, J."

So funny that she called my boss by his first name. I could never do that. It wasn't respectful enough.

"Jory, sweetie, please."

I closed my eyes and leaned back in my chair. Didn't she know that reasoning with Dane Harcourt when he had his mind made up was like reasoning with a hungry grizzly bear?

"If anyone can get him to come around it's you, Jory."

Why did everybody always say that? Why, when Sherman wanted something, did he come to me to break the ice for him first? Sherman Cogan and Miles Brown had been in this business with Dane Harcourt from day one, and yet they still walked around on eggshells with him. One of the men was himself a high-profile interior designer, with years of successful multi-million dollar projects to his credit, the other, one of the top landscape architects in the country. Yet they both worshipped my boss because he exclusively worked on residential homes. Apparently that was where the big bucks really were. I had thought that commercial buildings were where the money was, and I was right, but big-ticket contracts were harder to come by than society homes. And I had to admit that it was the name Harcourt that brought most people through our doors, having seen his work in Architectural Digest or Sunset or other magazines. The name recognition belonged to my boss.

When I first came to work for him almost five years ago, I had no clue who Dane Harcourt was. All I did know was that his firm had advertised for an assistant and I needed a job. Being brand-new in town, I needed to get out of the YMCA and start paying rent. I had three days to figure everything out before I would be living on the street. I had put in applications practically everywhere and the panic was starting to settle in.

I had shown up, with at least a hundred others, to fill two positions at the design firm of Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan. Debbie Towney was the office/accounting manager and she was done with it being just her and Jill Kincaid, the workload was just too heavy. Jill herself could not be expected to answer the phones, do all the typing, filing, Xeroxing, scheduling of hundreds and hundreds of business appointments and still remain sane. It had been decided that each partner would have his own personal assistant that would be responsible for only his work. I figured since typing speed hadn't been a prerequisite for the job, I could apply without making a fool of myself. I was wrong.

They made us all take a typing test. I failed miserably. I was allowed to return the next day because I got a perfect score on the vocabulary and spelling portions of the test, as well as knowing my stuff in the graphic design area. Not that I was a pro or anything, but the entire Adobe suite and I were very close friends. The problem was the next morning I had found a puppy--a Siberian husky mix, the vet said later--walking around on the street on my way over. I tried to get rid of it but the little bastard followed me for eight blocks. He was tenacious, and when he almost got run over darting across Michigan Avenue after me, I broke down and scooped him up. The whimpers of joy melted me right there. The dog and I bonded. I told him he was lucky he had a heavy coat because we'd be living outdoors in the very near future. He gave me the angled head-tip that dogs do when they're not sure what's going on with you.

Since I figured I didn't have a hope in hell of getting the assistant job anyway, I took my new puppy with me to the second interview. Needless to say, I was the only one who arrived with a barking dog in a cardboard pet carrier. Jill Kincaid asked me to leave just as Dane Harcourt walked out of his office. Everybody smiled, I grimaced, and he scowled.

I was invited into his office and I sat down in front of his enormous, antique wooden desk. His office was dark, with a polished hardwood floor that made one think an English scholar lived there instead of an architect. Bookcases took up almost all of the available space and several beautiful oil paintings hung on the walls. In one corner were several large plants, and in the other, next to the big bay window, were two huge wingback chairs and a small coffee table that was inlaid with tiles. The tiles were each hand-painted, I later learned, and each piece fit together to make a picture of a peacock. It had been his grandmother's table and it made him feel good to have it in his office, close to him. It made him feel like he still had a piece of her with him. After several minutes, he had stopped talking and looked at me. Like he was surprised at himself for explaining. But everyone shared with me. It was a gift.

He started to ask me about my qualifications and my brand-new puppy started to howl. I answered as best as I could, and he seemed genuinely impressed that I was planning to pursue a degree in fine art, until he started grilling me about what I was going to do with it once I had it. I told him I didn't know. I explained that I was going to major in it because I liked it and that was all. I was unsure of what I really wanted to do with my life. He replied that he wanted someone who was sure of their career choice, not some fly-by-night person who could be there one day and gone the next. I denied that would be the case when my puppy let out a bloodcurdling cry.

"What the hell's the matter with it?"

"He," I emphasized, "is just scared. He doesn't know where he is and I'm sure it's frightening."

"May I ask a stupid question?"

"Sure."

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"You know perfectly well what," he smiled, and I knew I could like the man. "Why did you bring your dog to this interview?"

"Because I just found him this morning and I didn't have enough time to take him back to the Y, or else I would have been late to see you, and I can't really leave him in my room alone anyway, I mean... I'll have to sneak him in tonight as it is."

"You found him today?"

"Yeah."

"Yes."

"Excuse me?"

"I hate the word yeah. Say yes instead."

"Okay," I said slowly, because who hated the word yeah? "Yes."

"When?"

"On the way over here."

"You found him just now."

I shrugged. "At least I stopped to get a carrier for him. I didn't want him taking a dump in your office."

"Very thoughtful of you."

I sighed deeply. This was a disaster.

"You found a dog on your way to this interview," he said, like he was trying to get it to sink in.

"Maybe it's a good omen." I smiled wide.

He stared at me. "Big believer in signs, are you?"

"Yes sir, I am," I said, using the word he preferred that time.

"Why not just take him to the pound?"

I squinted at him. "How is that hopeful?"

His eyes were locked on mine before he cleared his throat. "You know your dog is loud, good luck sneaking him in anywhere."

"He's just noisy because he's stuffed in a box."

"Is that right?"

"Sure."

"Let's test your theory."

"Pardon me?"

"Let's see him."

"Really?"

"Absolutely," Dane said, getting up and walking around his desk and sitting on the edge of it. "If you don't let him out, it sounds like he'll die or something."

I leaned over and opened the top of the cardboard carrier and Shiloh stopped howling and sat down. He looked up at both of us and started to wag his tail. I was about to pick him up, when Dane bent down and scooped him out of the carrier. My little puppy immediately started licking his face and then shoved his wet nose into the man's eye.

"Sorry," I half-laughed, "he's just happy to see you."

"He's real cute."

"I know. I can already tell he's gonna be a real pain in the ass."

Dane put him down and Shiloh proceeded to run circles around the room. "Tell me, Mr.--" he stopped, and looked up at me, "Keyes, is it?"

"It is," I answered, reaching unsuccessfully for my dog as he ran under my feet. "But you can call me Jory or J or whatever. I don't care."

"Tell me, Mr. Keyes, what do you think is more important, loyalty to me or loyalty to Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan? Are you a team player or more inclined to support the individual?"

I thought a minute, calculating what I thought he wanted to hear, but decided to just go with my gut. What could it possibly hurt? "If I work directly for you, Mr. Harcourt, then that's where my loyalty lies. I would be your personal assistant, no one else's."

He nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Keyes, we'll be in touch."

I thanked him and would have left then, but it took the both of us in a team effort to catch Shiloh and put him back in the carrier. Once we did, much whimpering and howling soon followed.

"He's such a faker," Dane smiled broadly. "He's going to be quite a handful."

I nodded, "I know, but imagine the fun."

"Imagine the fun," he echoed, his voice warm.

I looked up at him and smiled. "You've been really great about this."

He nodded. "What are you going to call him?"

"Shiloh."

"Civil War fan, are you?"

"No," I said flatly, "Neil Diamond."

"Oh." He was at a loss for words and I laughed. He was okay.

A day later, the last day I had before I was forced to leave, Jill Kincaid called and offered me the position as Miles Brown's personal assistant. I accepted immediately and was able to say yes to the guy I had met out at a club a week before. He and four others were moving into a studio apartment and he had asked me if I wanted to live with them. I had just enough for the first month of rent if I didn't have to spend another penny. After I got the call, I forked it all over to the landlord of my new place, the tiny apartment downtown beside the train tracks, looking like heaven after having nowhere to call home. That night I made my new roommates a deal that if they would feed the two of us, my dog and me, for the next two weeks until I got my first paycheck, I'd take care of the groceries and cooking for a month. I was shocked when they all agreed. Turned out that I was unanimously liked, they thought my dog was cool, and the idea of having a home-cooked meal every night for a month appealed to everyone. When Shiloh and I left the YMCA, I felt like I was finally going to be all right. And I was so thankful to the firm of Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan.

When I reported for work, Jill informed me that she had been confused and that I would be Mr. Harcourt's assistant instead of Miles Brown's. She was supposed to have been his assistant, but apparently he had other plans. She wanted to know what exactly I had done for him during my interview. I wanted to deck her. Dane saved me the trouble though when he walked out and told everyone that I had been the most honest person he'd interviewed. And the dog helped. Jill rolled her eyes and Miles's new assistant, Celia Johnson, was baffled. Dog? Had he said dog?

I soon found out, from the steady stream of applicants checking in to see if the position had been filled, the real reason he had chosen me to be his assistant. I was by far the only one not completely infatuated with him. Women swooned when he walked by. Jill and Celia both wanted my job very badly, and we couldn't keep a receptionist out front. The rotation in the office was about one every two months. That was about how long it took them to really piss him off. The girls all fell hard for his casual charm and that smile that lit up his eyes. I saw them lean over his desk and talk to him and I watched their hands hover over his shoulder when he wasn't looking, wanting to touch him but not daring to. They all wanted to be close to him--everybody except me. I could have cared less, so of course I was the only one he let get near him. He was himself with me because, gay or not, I was a guy and he didn't have to be careful with physical contact or with what came out of his mouth. He was painfully, brutally honest, blunt to the point where I was wincing for a while every time he spoke. But over the passing months I found that I just plain liked him, and my feelings sprang from a different source than infatuation or longing. I understood, beneath all the polish and style, that the man's heart was actually the most amazing thing about him. He hid his warmth and kindness well but I knew him better than anyone. I knew the man had gotten choked up when he drove me home from the vet after I put Shiloh to sleep. My sweet dog had succumbed to cancer at a year and a half, and I could no longer bear to watch him suffer. I had gotten the hard squeeze on the shoulder when I got out of the car. It was all he would let me see, but it was so much more than anyone else got.

"Jory."

My mind had been drifting, and when I looked up I saw how pained Sonja Lawson looked.

"Please, Jory, talk to him," she pleaded. "I swear I'm not leaving until he gets back. I want to talk to him. I think I can make this right with him."

"If you think so," I conceded, knowing full well that the whole thing was hopeless. "Stay if you want, but I'm telling you what I think you should do."

"What's that?"

"Run away," I teased her.

"That's not very mature."

"I'm just letting you know what I think. He wanted you gone, and you're doing just the opposite. Don't expect him to be happy when he gets back from lunch."

She turned away and went back to her desk. I felt really sorry for her, but there was nothing I could do. I had already asked him to reconsider his decision, without success. I knew that when she irritated him by staying until he got back, I'd be the one in trouble. The phone saved me from thinking about it.

"You want the number to the doctor's lounge now?" he asked without a greeting.

"Nick, you're seriously demented," I assured him before I took down the number he gave me. After he hung up, I left for Mediterranean food, because that usually put my boss in a pretty good mood.

I barely heard Sonja when I walked back into the office. She was crying and whining and saying how much she didn't want to go. I tuned her out after a few minutes while I answered e-mails, checked his calendar, and ordered flowers for Samantha Palmer, who he was apparently taking to the opera the following night. Her name had popped up on the calendar on my desktop over lunch. So much for Lacey Collins; it sounded like the AIDS benefit might be their last date.

"Jory!"

My head snapped up and I realized she was sobbing. "Jesus, what's with you?"

"He's ruining my life!"

"What?" I was confused.

"Jory, he--"

"Oh c'mon, Sonja." I half-laughed because it was ridiculous. "He doesn't want you and you're hurt for whatever reason. Just get over it already. Go home, and tomorrow you can start a new job with a new boss and forget all about Dane Harcourt."

"I'm really crazy about him, though."

And I looked at her and got it. She was one of those pretty girls that was used to having men fall at her feet. What she didn't get was that she wasn't even in his league. Even to date. "Oh for crissakes, get over it." I sighed, tired of the topic. "You've got no chance with him."

"Jory, I have--"

"Please," I scoffed at her. "He's a fantasy. No one actually gets a man like that."

Of course, just as I said it, Dane stepped into the office. We both realized that he had been standing just around the corner for several minutes. Heard everything. I sank into my chair; Sonja slunk out of the room, mumbling that she was off to see our office manager Debbie.

"Excellent," he told her.

I finally looked up and found that he was still towering over my desk. I had to tilt my head all the way back to see his face. He was staring at me hard, his eyes searching mine. I saw the muscles in his jaw flexing, but he didn't say a word, just looked at me. It was unnerving, having his full and complete attention, and I wasn't at all sure that I liked it. I felt myself start to squirm.

"You're back early," I muttered.

"Who knew you thought so much of me."

"What?" I asked, pretending I hadn't heard him, hoping he'd give me the out.

"You heard me."

No such luck. I took a deep breath. "Yeah, well," I said, my eyes not turning from his steady gaze. "It comes and goes."

"So," he said, finally looking away. "Do I get to eat?"

I sighed loudly so he couldn't miss the irritation. I fished out his meal of hummus and couscous and falafel and all the rest of the stuff he loved. The smile I got was his real one; the one you hardly ever saw, the one that did the killer thing to his eyes where they went all liquid and warm.

"Enjoy your lunch, sir."

He looked down at me and I had no idea what else to do so I reached into the top drawer of my desk and pulled out my last pack of Pop-Tarts. I held it out to him.

"Are they Strawberry Frosted?"

"Aren't they always?"

He took it from me and walked into his office without another word. I sat there for a minute, thinking about what I must have sounded like when I was talking to Sonja. Like maybe I had a crush of my own going on.

"Hey," Jill called out to me from the hall.

When I looked up at her, she was smiling wide.

"Another one bites the dust, huh, baby."

I threw up my hands and she burst out laughing. And as I watched her walk away I realized that, even as Sonja had not been accepted, I was. The girls and me, we were in the grind together.

Jill, Celia, and I had gotten close after six months, Debbie being a tougher nut to crack. It took a whole year. In the end, though, it was one of those things. All three of them still coveted my job but nobody wanted me to go anywhere, either. When Piper started and seemed immune to my boss's charms, it felt like we were finally in the process of building a strong crew that was going to stick around. As I looked across at Sonja's empty desk, I realized that I would be meeting somebody new that week. I probably should have suggested to Debbie that she ask the temp agency to send over a guy.


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